Not far from the train station in Rabat there’s a café called Autour du Nil. Though it really means “Around the Nile,” my sophomoric French translated it to “Surrounded by Nothing,” which still seems more fitting. Inside, grainy recordings of Arab music blare while the owner sings along, puffing from a pipe and shimmying through the cigarette haze to kibitz with each customer. His little dog sits patiently by the door, his little dog whose name stands out amid the scrawl of my journal because the owner took the liberty of adding it himself: Skypie. His name is also there on the page in the same font that alternates between capital and lowercase letters, complete with a signature beneath: Khalil.
Khalil’s left earlobe is pierced with a tiny red stone, like mine with a small silver hoop, and an amorphous black tattoo shows from his left hand, middle finger adorned with a jade ring. This is by far the most unusual older Moroccan man I’ve met in a most unusual Moroccan cafe, but more than I could have hoped for after turning down a new street quite literally for the hell of it. Romantically, I think to myself how there’s always a gem like this at the end of a road you take when you’re feeling inspired, adventurous and full. They proliferate for the seekers and those who say ‘yes.’ Or maybe just for me; none of my English-teaching cohort would stumble in here where there’s old men and no WiFi, though I admit, it was the first thing I asked for when I entered. My millennial ass nearly walked off when Khalil’s eyebrows drew together at the sound of “weefee,” but turned back when the realization of what I’d just seen dawned on me. No one here has a dog, a piercing and a tattoo. No one lives quite so freely, dancing in a cafe unknown to Google Maps with the music turned up loud, I thought from the opposite street corner.
“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us,” says one of my inspirations, Joseph Campbell. Adjusting this wisdom down to the scale of a sugar spoon, I decided the laptop could wait another day. “A tea, please.”
“No tea. How about an Espresso?”
“Bon, let’s make it half and half, qahawa nass-nass.”
By then, I knew I wasn’t there for any reason of my own choosing, so I let Khalil write in my journal and buckled in for the double strike of caffeine and a second-hand cigarette high. Cackling above the din, he informs me the singer is Algerian.
The barista section looks like someone’s kitchen at home, unsurprisingly like that of an old, pre-internet man. Papers strewn and dusty, a desk lamp and some hoary candles standing tall above a counter of assorted tzotchkes. It reminded me of the refrigerator in the Wood Bull antique shop where I used to work, whose equally zany owners, Kip and Judy, often talked about their Moroccan travels across five decades.
Khalil proudly calls out in English, his voice like Don Corleone’s but louder: “Salim, how was the coffee? I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the compliments. Make it perfectly!” Another café nass-nass appeared on the table, half espresso, half steamed milk.
This feels as close as I’ve come to the Morocco of the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, the Morocco which congealed out of smoke rings while I sat somewhat cluelessly in my senior dorm on Riverside Drive. Molded also by Kip and Judy’s tales and my lurking Orientalist imagination, this was the place. Khalil’s eyes sparkle in the lamplight from behind the counter – the look of a man in his element. The soundtrack changes, it’s a singer from Fes, dead in the ‘90s, the patrons grumble confirmation from under their mustaches.
Above me is a drawing of the man himself with his dog, sketched by a friend’s hand. They stand in the doorway with its old, 8-faced green glass lamp dangling, and beyond the threshold is a sea of clouds. I wonder which one I’m perched on right now, surrounded by nothing. Occasionally Khalil comes by, bends over my writing with his reading glasses, hand on my shoulder. We’re both getting a kick out of this.
“I love my king and my country,” he mutters in French and Darija, making me laugh in disbelief. But I stop under the force of his steady gaze, unsure if it’s a joke. There’s a surprising amount of military paraphernalia Around the Nile, so much that I think it must be ironic. After all, the police barracks around the corner ensures most of the clientele is flag-sporting pork, sitting alone or being noisy from within their dark uniforms on the small metal chairs. Khalil chums it up with all of them, leaning against the walls covered with burnished artifacts of an older kingdom: ornate brass hunting horns, powder kegs, lamps, more pictures of the King, and gilt verses of the Qur’an in frames not quite straight.
I just don’t get it. This whole scene is puzzling even as I resist the need to “get” anything at all.
But what I do get, after a few more visits including one with my whole family, is that Khalil is another citizen sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, between desire and convention. When last we met, he bellowed cynically that his favorite customers come in, drink their coffee and piss off. Then, with genuine softness, how his mother is his whole world. This time his guttural French was perfumed with spirits as it wafted over the small granite tabletop. Ear pierced and unmarried, Mom, Dad and Zak were quicker to guess the truth than me.
Strangely feeling like I had the upper hand, I searched his inscrutable gaze for subtext and meaning, trying to glimpse the depth of his experience simmering beneath mentions of Thailand, Spain and France “il y a très longtemps.” Maybe this is the mark of charisma, but all that reflected in his yellowed eyes last Monday evening were good stories untold and a trace of pain.